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On The Flip Side
by Michael Munger

Where The Heck Is Netscape?
February 8th, 2000

If you follow the browser wars, you probably ask yourself a question I often ask myself. Where is Netscape Communications? Where is its browser? I'm not talking about Communicator 4.7 either, but about that marvelous Mozilla project that was kicked off in April 1998. This was supposed to give birth to Communicator 5.

I understand that it has made interesting progress lately. The M12 build (M standing for Milestone) was their first solid version since the project started, and the M13 build came out soon after. Now, they are en route for the M14 release.

This aside, we are now in February 2000, and it took an awful lot of development time for Communicator to reach the alpha stage. Almost two years! Meanwhile, we are also very close to downloading Internet Explorer 5 from Microsoft's servers and mirror sites...

It's amazing how Netscape has lost so much ground over the years, despite a great head start in 1994 and their own huge monopoly in the browser market. At the time, it looked like nothing would ever stop the company. Every time it released a new version of its software, a new standard was established and Microsoft's IE could seemingly never catch up. Everything seemed so easy for Netscape Communications as they kept defining and revolutionizing their own pioneering field.

That was until IE 3.0 came out. It proved to be lighter and faster, even though it wasn't quite ready for prime time. While version numbers for each product raced neck and neck almost equally during the last couple of years, Microsoft won the overall war of improvements during the course from 3.0 to 4.5. IE also won impressive gains in market share. Even Netscape's move to make Communicator officially free - they used to ask you to pay for it - didn't halt IE's advance.

While Communicator 4.5 brought some new features, IE 4.5 continued to add amazing stuff like forms AutoFill, the Page Holder, better Sherlock integration, etc. You get the point.

Now, where are we, in February 2000?

  • Communicator is still at M13, and it makes one's head hurt to try and find out when it will go beta and when it will be ready for a final version.
  • Microsoft Internet Explorer 5 will come out in a few weeks (if not a couple), it looks like a steamroller with its new rendering engine and features, while Communicator 5 is still not ready for prime time.
  • Netscape Communications lost important faces from the development team not too long ago.
  • Communicator 5 is nothing more than a symphony of delays so far.

Get it together!

I don't know about you, but I can't wait until Netscape gets its act together to release Communicator 5.

While I like to see Internet Explorer's steady improvement, I don't like the idea of it holding a monopoly. You know how it is when Microsoft positions itself in an advantageous position. "Do it my way, or else." Not that I hate MS anymore. I actually like the people at the Macintosh Business Unit. They're very nice and cooperative, but in the end, if the big bosses give them orders, they might just have to execute them.

Competition is a basic requirement for consumers to benefit from healthy market conditions. If you give all the power to only one entity, you never know when abuse will take place.

This is why I believe that Netscape Communicator 5 is needed, and I want it to be great, so that people will have options. Such options will make sure that there are two great players in the game. If one of them goofs and tries to impose its own way, the other can fight back with better respect of Web standards that protect the user against abuse.

That's the way it is. To me, the best example of perfect competition is the phone industry in Canada. It's red hot, fellas. Why? Because competition is strong. So many companies try to attract wireless phone and long distance customers that the market conditions and prices are better than in the United States! I found this after discussing the matter with a pal in the US. Imagine. We're barely 30 million people and we get better plans than a couple of hundred million US citizens get. I know, we're spoiled.

Back to the point. I suspect that Internet Explorer 5 for the Mac will be great, and this is my fear. If Netscape doesn't act quickly in order to release an amazing Communicator 5 and keep its current market share, it will lose further ground and IE might just win what's left of the browser war. Am I an alarmist? I don't think so. In any competition, you can't determine the turning point until the war is over. At the armistice, you realize which battle was the key for victory.

I don't want to see that happen to browsers. I don't want Netscape folks to realize that their lag allowed Explorer to munch enough market share for Communicator 5 to face certain defeat before the day of its official release. I don't want anybody to win that war because its very ongoing condition is best for everybody.

Do you think that Duracell and Energizer batteries would perform so well if one of the companies stopped manufacturing?

Your comments are welcomed.

Michael Munger is a French Canadian living in Montreal. He discovered the Mac in 1994 while studying journalism, the profession he loves and practices. He also studied history and communications. In addition to his work at The Mac Observer, he authors the iBasics tutorial column at Low End Mac, and cofounded MacSoldiers in 1998.

You can find more about him at his personal Web site.

You are welcome to send me your comments or you can post them below.

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